Life in the ETIC
a Faculty Forum

Robin Murray
Mary Maddox
Martin Scott
Lynanne Page
Dan Tessitore
Christopher Hanlon

[We put to our respondents the following question:
Based on your own experiences teaching in the ETIC classrooms--and your own teaching philosophy--how successful are these facilities and the pedagogy they imply? Has the technology been effectively integrated into the larger disciplines of Rhetoric and literary study? What particular advantages—and problems—do you find in the computer-enhanced format? What changes if any would you recommend for the future?
Naturally, this being an English Department, no one followed instructions. Nevertheless the replies, ranging from a reminiscence of the heroic early days of "word processing" to a savage riff on the advantages of Macs over PCs, are eminently worth reading. —JDK]

Robin Murray

The ETIC and Me

was flattered when John asked me to join this forum but not really sure what I could say to add to a discussion that has been ongoing since the ETICs’ inception. Going on seven years ago now, I attended a workshop (again led by Randy) that introduced the ETIC desktop. The introductory session inspired me to put together a brief guide to the ETIC for students, taking them through the process of saving documents in my folder and accessing the folder for assignments and other student papers for peer review. The guide highlighted ways to save email onto disk from Eudora and emphasized the need to log out each session. With guide in hand, the students and I saved and retrieved documents from the work folder marked with my name and used Eudora as an online discussion tool. All seemed fine until I realized that access to the ETIC outside of class time was minimal—and so was access to that pesky folder. I won’t dwell on the failures of the system itself.

Instead—grabbing onto a loosely interpreted tenet from Cynthia Self—my use of the technology integrated classrooms attempts to benefit students at all phases of the writing process. I refuse to allow technology to drive composition, but I still believe technology helps students improve their writing. Because I’m an old fashioned writing process theorist still attached to hard copies, most of this is both self-evident and rather dull, but I’ll dutifully outline ways technology benefits my own composition instruction:

  • When students begin generating ideas for documents, brainstorming on a computer in a simple word processing program seems to facilitate greater output—not all good, of course—than do pen and paper.
  • Computer access also (potentially) enhances students’ research skills. The library browser provides them with a plethora of full text articles, allowing access to more current research in their area of study. Evaluation of online sources—both from the library and the Internet—may also enhance students’ analytical and critical thinking skills; skills I hope will transfer to other documents and “texts.”
  • Students tend to write more fluid drafts on a computer—or at least the drafts look better and are easier to read.
  • Students also tend to generate more commentary on a computer than in long hand, when critiquing a peer’s draft in a peer review session.
  • Computers (also potentially), or at least word processing software, can also ease students’ revision process—you know, the old copy and paste, cut/delete, add stuff (as long as students don’t see a typed draft as a finished document).
  • And those final drafts are at least readable.

Lately, however, I have found the faculty computer and projector of most use in composition, literature, pedagogy, and film classes. With handwriting as illegible as mine, typing notes, instead of writing them on a board, helps. But this kind of “note-taking” also allows me to provide a record of class discussion—I type up (in brief) commentary, save it, and then use it as a way to begin discussion on later occasions. Having such a readable record can also help students see what they have learned during the semester—a sort of record of pre- and post- beliefs, ideas, thoughts (etc.) about the course focus. I also like to integrate art into literature (and even film) classes—and the Internet allows me to download and show images from museums all over the world. Having student stations on hand, however, allows students to practice the skills we model – via computer/projector, or some more traditional technology like chalk.

Mary Maddox

This Week’s Assignment

hen I got my first computer about twenty years ago, I had no intention of using it to write stories. The idea of “word processing” seemed mechanical and uncreative. I thought of the computer as a new-fangled typewriter. I would write my stories longhand then type them on the computer to print. No more messy correction fluid! But from the first day I went from simply transcribing to revising onscreen—changing a word here and there, refashioning or moving a sentence. It was only a day or two before I stopped bothering with the handwritten draft. Writing on the computer was so much faster and less cumbersome than a pen or typewriter. My imagination seemed to become suppler and freer; I wondered how I’d managed to write all those years without a computer.

Then something terrible began to happen. I couldn’t open my files. They were on the disk, but the word processor couldn’t open them. I ran a diagnostic program and discovered the file directory had been corrupted. A computer expert at the university told me the same thing and explained why the data couldn’t be salvaged without that directory. My stories would have been lost if I hadn’t made printed copies before saving.

Finally I worked out the problem. In those days computers were primitive. There was no hard drive, so every time a computer booted, the operating system had to be loaded into memory from a floppy disk. I stored my disks in a plastic box between the power cords for the CPU and the printer. The cords created a magnetic field that over time corrupted data on all the floppies, including the MS-DOS floppy. The corrupt operating system was destroying the file directories on my disks.

I felt some satisfaction at discovering what was wrong. Next time I would know better. Before long I was shopping for a newer and more advanced computer, one that would give me problems beyond my wildest imaginings. All of them had a solution, though, and each one taught me something.

This cycle of enthusiasm and frustration has repeated itself many times through my computing career, including my successes and failures in the ETIC. I’m excited by the possibilities of the Internet for communication and information gathering—not to mention the occasional game of online Scrabble. I can hardly wait until the new network in the ETIC is up and running. It won’t be perfect, but I expect to learn as much in there as my students.

Martin Scott

am not a Luddite. I love my computers—I do all my writing on computers, I do a lot of editing of student essays on computers, I surf the net obsessively, I love email, and I buy a lot of crap online. I have a cable internet hook up so I can Download Things Faster—you know, Things. I’ve owned more computers now than I’ve had wives, and that’s getting to be something to say. I’m writing this amusing little essay on a computer now, and gee whiz, It Sure Is Easier to Write On a Computer, Isn’t It, Kids?

Big deal. I find the whole ETIC thing a crashing bore (crashing is the operative word here), and I have no interest in teaching a class in a room that has an acronym all its own. OK, so the ivy digging its tentacles into the outer walls of academe has been replaced by miles of cordage reaching inside the hallowed halls, binding us in jolly hyperspace, blah blah blah, fill in the postmodern blanks.

It’s certainly true that computers are fine tools, and it’s also true that the educated public has adapted to their use, and that computers will be here until the Apocalypse erases all the data from their little silicon heads, but computers don’t teach anyone how to write.

Writers teach people how to write. And frankly, I think a room full of monitors is nothing but a big distraction from that obvious fact. I also think the real reason Arts and Humanities types like to work with them so much is because we have a huge inferiority complex before the Hard Sciences—“Look at us, see, we can use these dandy boxes you guys made, see, I’m correcting a sentence on my monitor, and the student is all the way across the room!” You know those Hard Science guys (yes, mostly GUYS) are having a good chuckle about that one. “Dude, check this out, the English Dept. has a computer classroom!” Various unwashed guys in boxers and long hair fall to floor laughing. “They look at their students’ work on the monitor . . .in the same classroom!”

Well, the professor could always walk the ten feet to the student and see what she’s written on paper, but then that wouldn’t be High Tech, would it? If we have an ETIC, that justifies our existence, because we all know just teaching Writing doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it? But if we’re spending the public’s money on high-tech devices that fall apart in a few years, damn, we’re making Progress, especially according to all the Latest Research.

I don’t understand why the ETIC is even an issue. Of course it falls apart—it’s manufactured by the same system that makes our cars fall apart after a few years so we have to buy more. People, hello, it’s SUPPOSED to fall apart. And once you’re committed to it, you can’t back out, because that would be admitting Defeat. No, just get the Sacred Update. That’ll fix it. I know that Professor Hanlon thinks that if we all had Macs instead of PCs, everything would be Jim Dandy, but I’m only willing to believe they’d be Prettier, and, well, yes, maybe even Spiffier. I have sneaked a peek or two at his Mac laptop, nicknamed Skippy, and I must say the nickname does the electronic device justice.

But writing is about people. Nothing else really matters all that much; clay tablets work as well in a pinch if you need to write an epic poem. We use whatever tool is at hand, because we need to speak—the need to communicate clearly and beautifully is the issue, not the tool. Writing takes place in the human brain, not in some reified Hyperspace we imagine has some importance beyond mere convenience.

And computers are pretty, hard phalluses we love to stare at day in and day out, but they’ve got nothing to do with the essential contract.

Lynanne Page

The Conundrum of Mechanized Learning in the English Department

Higher education is profoundly obligated to teach students to use technology. Despite the complications it can cause for teachers and administrators, technology has revolutionized research methods and ways of learning, allowing access to an astounding collection of information.

Arguably, the composition sequence, by teaching students to process information, relies more heavily upon technology than any other sequence in the humanities. Yet our use of technology in the English classroom rests upon a set of conditions which must be considered in any examination of the ETIC. EIU’s egalitarian approach to the cost of education creates difficulty in providing enough shoulders to comfortably bear the burden of mechanized learning. This difficulty is intensified, of course, by the budgetary problems which we are experiencing, but also by our commitment to quality teaching, which allows less time for inevitable technological malfunctions.

Until now, we have negotiated these complications using a combination of cooperation, patience and determination. Now that the ETIC has been rebuilt, we are confronted by the combination of opportunity and challenge which accompanies all technological advance. Our educational philosophy, of which our commitment to humanistic, egalitarian education is a part, will allow us to continue unraveling the conundrum of the electronic composition classroom.

Dan Tessitore

hile I have ample experience creating online course materials for distance education purposes, I’ve generally regarded computers in classrooms as little more than convenient storage/filing systems where students can easily keep a portfolio of their writing. This is a good thing in many ways, not the least of which is the ease with which students can revise work without starting from scratch. In 1001G I have occasionally used the Blair Handbook interactive exercises online, but most often I have simply shown the students how to use the web site and advised them to take advantage of it on their own – I prefer that my students interact with me, each other, and the readings for most of our classroom time. That said, I do understand the benefit of devoting some time to in-class writing activities, and I do look forward to discovering new ways to use the lab productively and creatively, once reliability issues are solved.

Christopher Hanlon  

pparently Marty suggested to John that it might be fun to bait one of the Macintosh users in the department by getting me to comment on life in the ETIC, as if Agora gets a dime every time it forces a representative of some vanquished people to dance a jig for his conquerors. Whatever. But if they expect me to reward this cheap gambit with a diatribe about how awful PCs are—if they expect me to opine on the pointless and stupid right-click, or rehearse the old rant about how Bill Gates stole from Steve Jobs the three or four things that actually work well in Windows, or to ask, rhetorically, who would choose to spend their life dealing with memory management, interrupts, DMA channels, SYSTEM.INI files, or system freezes—I won’t do it.

The truth is I know Mac users can be evangelical, not to mention dorky. Dana’s even taken to mocking me by naming my powerbook “Skippy” (as in, “So how’s Skippy today?” or “Spend any quality time with Skippy lately?” I’ll tell you, it just stays funny no matter how many times I hear it). I’ve had students introduce themselves as fellow Mac users after seeing me tote Skippy to class, and I’ll confess I’ve lived to regret their friendliness after the sixth or seventh after-class confab about how great it is to use one’s iPod as an external hard drive, or about how like, lame it is that PC users don’t understand that it’s not megahertz alone that determines a CPU’s operating speed (eyeballs orbiting far back beyond the point necessary to communicate duh!), or how they’ve programmed Acrobat to operate by voice command. I remember the satisfaction I felt last Spring connecting Skippy to a printer that would not cooperate with Denise’s brand new Gateway, knowing as I did it would work perfectly without the need to load new software, whereas she had to scour the web for some obscure patch or driver. But it’s dorky that I felt satisfied.

So yes, working with PCs in the ETIC has claimed more of my time than my enthusiasm, but at some level I’ve learned to check my Apple-snobbishness and to like being made to use PCs once in a while, and not only because those virus-ridden calamities remind me how good I have it back in my world. For one thing, one learns an awful lot about directory structures working on a PC. Not to mention how to restart the machine. And most of our students use PCs, so I view this short time with them in their element as I imagine an anthropologist views her time amongst the denizens of a primitive culture. They say that after a long day tracking the raw and the cooked amongst the Amazonians, Levi-Strauss savored a cognac in his tent. Similarly for me, fifty minutes in the ETIC always makes me turn down the lights in my office so I can watch my keyboard with its ambient light sensors light up automatically. Did I mention I can use my iPod as an external hard drive?

Probably the biggest difference between Mac and PC users concerns aesthetics, which we have in surfeit and PC users have learned to live without. Macs are gorgeous things, while for the most part PCs have remained the same old box for the past fifteen years (though some clones emulate a bit of style by plagiarizing the contours of last year’s Mac—badly). Umberto Eco wrote in Harper’s a few years ago that the divide between Macs and PCs is akin to the divide between Catholics and Protestants: yes, in some sense PCs are more democratic (that is, cheaper), but one sacrifices much beauty in bringing Word to the laity.

So since they’ve clearly got what they wanted, go on and laugh, Marty and John. Enjoy your next all-nighter with Norton Anti-Virus. I’m not your pet monkey.